U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., fired back at his union critics Tuesday, accusing the United Auto Workers of trying to unfairly limit what state and federal lawmakers said about organized labor during the recent unionization election at Volkswagen.
The UAW has accused Corker and other Republican politicians of creating a climate of fear and intimidation in their anti-union comments before the election in which hourly employees at the VW plant in Chattanooga voted 712-626 against representation by the UAW.
On Friday, the union asked the National Labor Relations Board to order a new election because Corker, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and other Republicans warned before the vote that the union might hurt the plant and limit state incentives for Volkswagen to add a sports utility vehicle line at its Chattanooga plant.
"Now this is going to the NLRB, something that the president controls," Corker said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday. "The question will be whether they will try to muzzle or keep a United States senator, a governor or a state legislator from being able to express their views."
Anti-union workers at VW worry that the NLRB will side with the union and order a new election since Volkswagen has signed a neutrality agreement with the union and isn't opposing the organizing effort.
Five VW workers opposed to the UAW filed a motion with the labor board Tuesday asking that they be allowed to intervene in the case and challenge union claims about how the election was conducted Feb. 12 to Feb. 14.
"This was a secret ballot election and the workers have spoken," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, which is working with the employees opposed to the union. "Based on Volkswagen management's actions leading up to this point, these workers are concerned that VW will not actively defend their vote to remain free from union boss control."
Corker said he and the governor, along with GOP legislative leaders in Nashville, were simply trying to tell workers their concerns about union representation to counter the UAW representatives who were allowed to make public presentations within the VW plant before the vote.
"Inside the plant with only the UAW there, they were spreading rumors rampantly that the only way that the plant was going to be expanded is if the union won the vote," Corker said. "In that context, with us having to come over the transom, we wanted to make sure people knew, in fact, that Chattanooga was the first location [for the SUV line] and if, in fact, people did vote the union out, Chattanooga was still going to be the place where the company expected to expand."
Corker, who has called UAW "job killers" and claims the union is only interested in membership and dues, said he developed his animosity with the UAW during his negotiations in 2008 over the automobile industry bailout as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Corker claims the UAW balked at making concessions needed for the Big 3 automakers to effectively compete and survive, short of bankruptcy.
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams blasted Corker's comments as "outrageous" and claimed they helped defeat the union in Chattanooga.
Williams said VW workers in Chattanooga "were scared to death" and "in their mind threatened with their jobs" by the outside politician comments.
"It's unbelievable that they are interfering with these workers," Williams said in an interview with MSNBC. "But we're not going to go away."
Corker bristled at the notion of being called an outsider in the city where he lives and where he served as city mayor.
"The fact is, if I cannot weigh in and say things that I know to be true and the experiences that I've had with the UAW and their path of job destruction in our community when something like this is being discussed, what can I do?" Corker asked. "It's going to be an interesting debate to see if the National Labor Relations Board will hold to what it has done for 50 years that people like me can weigh in, or whether they will try to muzzle people like me who are trying to look out for their community."
Williams accused conservative business and political interests of trying to sabatoge the election.
"The NLRB needs to limit outside interference in the vote from [Americans for Tax Reform founder] Grover Norquist, the Koch brothers and other conservatives that just want to hold workers back," he said. "They don't want a strong middle class and they don't want any collective bargaining."
Williams noted that the UAW has nearly 5,000 members already in Tennessee. He chided politicians who took credit for job additions in Spring Hill, where GM is adding 1,800 jobs in a plant represented by the UAW
The election defeat was a major blow for UAW President Bob King who had promised to organize at least one of the major foreign transplant assembly plants in the South before he retires in June. The 86-vote margin of loss for the UAW at Volkswagen was far closer than the 2-to-1 margins by which the union lost in previous unionization elections at Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn.
"This was a very important election, but I don't think it was the UAW's "Waterloo" as some have suggested," said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Industy and Labor Group at the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan. "I call it a narrow loss, not a crushing defeat, and the UAW is one of the richest unions with nearly a billion dollars in assets so they aren't going anywhere any time soon."
VW offered the best chance for union representation of any automaker in the South by not opposing the UAW and by supporting a works council and co-determination model that, in the United States, requires a labor union.
"Volkswagen sees the works council as a competitive advantage and the only way to have that model in the U.S. is to have a union representing the workers," Dziczek said.
UAW critics contend that the UAW couldn't promise better wages for VW workers and that new employees hired by the Big 3 under the union's two-tiered wage system don't make any more than what VW pays in Chattanooga. But Dziczek noted that 80 percent of UAW workers are paid nearly 50 percent more under the higher portion of the UAW contract and that over time most workers, at least at Ford Motor Co., are to move into the higher pay scales.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.